Stepinac's block party helps win
WHITE PLAINS -- The last two summers with the Westchester Hawks, Conroy Baltimore and Matt Townsend have shared pleasantries in the paint at AAU practice, sparring and sweating in empty gyms without fans there to assign winners and losers. Needless to say, the two friends, perhaps the area's two top senior big men, both entered last night with a competitor's edge. They arrived anxious to re-engage one another in a game that counted.
Horace Greeley's Steve Haynes fouls Stepinac's Julian Wright during the championship game of the Slam Dunk Tournament at the Westchester County Center on Thursday.
"Definitely," Stepinac senior Julian Wright said of his teammate Baltimore. "That's the only thing he kept talking about since the beginning of the season was that he wanted to play (Horace) Greeley in the championship. It happened, and he came up big for us."
Baltimore and the Crusaders proved their superior depth and that, in this case, defense can win a Slam Dunk championship. The 6-foot-5 forward swatted seven shots and had nine points and 10 rebounds to earn MVP honors after Stepinac's convincing 61-42 victory over Townsend and the Quakers.
Townsend finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds on 8-of-18 shooting, but the Crusaders (6-3) forced him into six turnovers. He also scored eight of his points in the final 3:38 of the first half when Baltimore was on the bench with two fouls.
After tipoff, it was mostly junior Austin Taps and Wright who shared the defensive assignment of guarding Townsend -- an ode to Stepinac's defensive versatility -- which allowed Baltimore to avoid serious foul trouble and defend on the weak side.
"I was very impressed with their defense," said the Yale-bound Townsend, a 6-7 forward who entered the game averaging more than 30 points per game. "Stepinac's an excellent defensive team. I give them a lot of credit."
The Crusaders led just 30-26 at halftime after one of Greeley's three sophomore starters, Matt Xie, hit two free throws with 4.2 seconds left in the second quarter. But after a Townsend hoop at the start of the third quarter, Stepinac embarked on a 10-0 run to push its lead to double digits. Wright, a 6-2 forward, scored six of his team-high 19 during that stretch.
Sophomore point guard Josh James returned to the starting lineup and added 10 points and three steals for the Crusaders. Fellow guards James Chillemi and Tyler Iacuone each added nine points.
Stepinac coach Tim Philp said his backcourt's defensive pressure prevented the Quakers (8-1) from finding an open Townsend, particularly in the second half. It resulted in 22 turnovers. And no Greeley player other than Xie (10 points) scored more than two baskets.
"It was just a team win," said the Lehigh-bound Baltimore, who also had three steals. "In a matchup like this between two premier players, it always comes down to the teams."
Townsend believed that this would help his team, which dropped its first game but clearly faced its best opponent to date in doing so.
"This is a test for us to see how well we respond after a loss," Townsend said. "They're an excellent team. We're not going to keep our heads down. We're going to come back stronger after this."